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Pummeled By Disaster, Santa Barbara Restaurants Pull Together

Sherry Villanueva is managing partner and owner of Acme Hospitality in Santa Barbara, which includes restaurants—The Lark, Loquita, Lucky Penny, Pearl Social, and Helena Avenue Bakery. She also oversees two wine-tasting facilities and is working to open two hotels in California’s Gold Rush country.

Santa Barbara has been through so much in the past few years. For us, one of the most challenging things with COVID is that businesses in Santa Barbara had just barely recovered from the financial hole and emotional trauma of back-to-back disasters when the pandemic hit.

First there was this crazy weather event on Labor Day Weekend in 2017. It was a micro-burst—I never had even heard of one before, but it’s basically like a backwards tornado—and it came through right here and ripped out huge condenser units for the air conditioning and the fans for all of our hood systems, and slammed them down onto the street. Umbrellas were scattered every which way, there was no power, and there was this torrential downpour that flooded all the streets around here. It was very scary, and it just created this massive chaos.

Then the Thomas Fire that December was also very, very scary. It was visible from everywhere, lasted for weeks, and burned about 440 square miles. We had to shut down all the restaurants because of air quality. We tried to stay open as much and as often as we could because so much of the area had been evacuated to downtown, and all the hotels in this area were full of locals looking for somewhere to eat.

We had just brought our heads out from the dust and were feeling like, “Okay, we made it, we’re intact,” and then the debris flow hit on January 9th. It was very sudden, in the middle of the night, when heavy rain on the burnt hills caused a mudflow up to 15 feet high, full of trees and boulders that came down and wiped out more than 100 homes and killed more than 20 people. The toll that the debris flow took on the entire community of Santa Barbara and Montecito is still palpable today. It just shook everything to its core.

So we were just finally feeling like we’re back in the light, and the coronavirus hits. But I think that because of what we had all just been through together, the community connections had become tighter and stronger—not just in the restaurant industry, but in all of Santa Barbara. We had a keen understanding of the fragility of the industry and the community. So when we had to shut down businesses because of the coronavirus, it was only moments before we started to mobilize. Everyone looked to their left and right and said, “Who needs what?” The entire community had developed a certain sense of resiliency, and we felt like, here we go again—we’re going to get through this. And that turned into community mobilization.

One of the first things that happened was restaurants sharing information with each other, because information was changing daily. What was happening with the PPP program? What was happening with the governor’s orders? How do we handle employee issues around unemployment claims? The volume of information coming was intense. That was one of the things that started to tie everybody together.

Businesses also started to share not just information, but also resources. We opened a grocery pantry for our employees to get free groceries. We funded it ourselves at first, then we started a GoFundMe campaign. But we also started getting donations from other businesses that just wanted to help.

Produce at the Acme free grocery. Photo: Courtesy Acme Hospitality.

For instance, Alexander Ranch donated pallets of butter lettuce. They donated so much of it that we started calling other restaurants, saying, “We have the most beautiful lettuce you’ve ever seen. Do you need some?” We had eight restaurants that came and would pick up 20-, 30-, 40-pound cases of butter lettuce. And this went on for weeks.

The Farmbox Collective also donated a bunch of vegetables for our grocery program, and fresh-cut flowers, which was so very special because our employees were dealing with a lot of tough times. To bring a little glimmer of beauty just through a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers really went a long way.

We also had a lot of people who don’t work for our company who showed up to our employee grocery program. But if someone comes to a free grocery program, then they obviously need food. So it was just, “Let ’em in.” Everyone was looking around and saying, “What do I have, and who needs it the most?”

Another example is Dave Potter, a local wine maker. He and the Apiary—which makes cider, mead, and kombucha—did a collaboration and made a piquette wine. There’s an old tradition that piquette is made during very hard times, because to make it, you’re using fermented grape skins and making another round of wine off of the grapes you already used. They made a whole bottling of it, and they said, “We want to give this to you.” And they gave us and other restaurants in town multiple cases. We used ours when we launched the Lucky Penny to-go program, and we gave a free bottle to everybody who ordered a pizza.

For the first month, before we opened any kind of takeout or dine-in, we dedicated all of our social media channels to supporting other restaurants in town that were doing takeout. Every day we were pushing other restaurants, and other people did the same. That kind of cross-promotion stayed strong for months as people were trying to share any resource they could. And of course people were sharing equipment and other things too.

Acme staff preparing meals for the Santa Barbara Food Bank. Photo: Courtesy Acme Hospitality.

And it’s still going on. I’m in contact with other restaurateurs pretty much every day, asking, “What do you need? How can I help?” There’s a lot of sharing of ideas and even sharing of employees across our company’s different restaurants. “I have an employee that used to work full time. We can only give him half time. Can you take him? Do you need hours?”

Before all of these disasters, Santa Barbara’s food industry had been really growing and developing over the last ten years. And we’re all so excited about each other. There are almost 500 restaurants here, and most of them are small and independent. We all love that Santa Barbara is becoming this very high-quality food destination, and everyone wants to make sure that continues. There’s this really lovely mutual respect and desire to support each other in good times and in bad.